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The Vancouver Courier, Sept. 10

by Geoff Olson

The late Texan journalist Molly Ivins once wrote that “the truth, that little slippery bugger has the oddest habit of being way to hell off on one side or the other: it seldom nestles neatly halfway between any two opposing points of view.”

“It’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, “Cat,” and the other side saying “Dog,” while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes,” Ivins observed.

With the B.C. Liberal government’s defiance of a Supreme Court decision to restore class size and composition clauses (illegally stripped from the BCTF contract by education minister Christy Clark and former Premier Gordon Campbell in 2002), and their rejection of binding arbitration, I don’t see tufts of cat and dog hair in the Victoria/BCTF scrap.  I see elephant footprints.

Last February the Alberni Valley News reported that B.C. government lead negotiator Paul Straszak “admitted in court that his strategy in 2012 negotiations with the B.C. Teachers’ Federation was to provoke a full-scale strike.” Supposedly the intent was to further alienate the public to the union.

Straszak reportedly shared this notion in a briefing with Premier Christy Clark’s deputy minister John Dyble before a cabinet meeting.

So a cynical scheme to incite war between teachers and the government goes right up to Clark’s door. There is no evidence it went past it, and no evidence it didn’t. Either way, I can imagine ex-premier Gordon Campbell in a flight suit, standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier with a banner behind him reading, “Mission Accomplished.”

Speaking of bogus victories, our neighbours to the south are well ahead of us in transforming education. In the last decade, a heavily financed  campaign has undercut US teachers, demonized their unions, gutted education budgets, and served up public schools like carrion to vulture capitalists.

In a 2010 corporate press release from, News Corporation Chairman and CEO, Rupert Murdoch wrote, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching…”

We need only to look to the disaster of US health care delivery to imagine American K-12 education after Murdoch and his fellow travellers are finished with it. Do we really want to follow the American model, when BC already has the second highest rate of independent school enrolment in Canada?

This province also has the second worst per student education funding in Canada. Stories of BC teachers and parents paying out of pocket for school supplies are commonplace and factual. Sightings of school librarians, counsellors and music teachers are becoming as rare as spirit bears and marbled murrelets.

We’ve heard plenty about greedy, overpaid teachers trying to outpace their public sector counterparts, but a Globe and Mail study puts B.C. teachers squarely in the middle of national compensation. Beyond that, there are a big, complex problems in servicing special needs students, but a school-suspending standoff that stresses families’ finances and schedules is hardly the royal road to resolution.

Last week, I witnessed a small group of upset parents confront North Vancouver District MLA Jane Thornthwaite at her office. “This forty dollars a day, is that a voucher system? Is that what we’re looking at? Is that where you guys are taking us without telling us?” asked one mother in a trembling voice.

I’m wondering too. Is this mooted $40 scheme about privatization by stealth, with B.C. parents softened up through bribes/hush money? Is this refusal to negotiate about making public schooling so dysfunctional Victoria can point to it as a failed experiment?

At this point, we have little reason to believe that the B.C. Liberal government’s attempt to starve out the teachers isn’t just a first move, before smashing open public school funding like a piñata for those with no stake in the idea of “common good”.

There is nothing “liberal” about Clark’s zero-sum game with the teachers’s union. In fact, you can’t even describe the provincial government  as conservative, since that word connotes “conserving.”  No, our leaders in Victoria are best described as radicals. Or rogue elephants of the Republican/Tea Party variety.

The Vancouver Courier, Sept. 12


By Geoff Olson

Last week, the “Intelligence Unit” of The Economist ranked Vancouver as the third most livable city in the world. Melbourne came in at number one and Vienna at number two.

Our city has achieved first-place ranking in The Economist’s little black book multiple times since 2005. But this year, it’s as if the magazine gave a long-stemmed rose to a Lululemon-wearing, Grind-crazed bachelorette, but then forced her into a group date with those uppity beyotches, Vienna and Melbourne.

Perhaps you’re feeling a bit confused. Isn’t Melbourne the Calgary of Australia? And what’s Toronto doing at number four in The Economist’s civic beauty pageant? And why is Calgary at five?

It’s complicated. The Economist ranks world cities from zero to 100 in 30 categories, including stability, health care, culture, environment, education, and infrastructure (no comportment or swimsuit category).  Famous for exporting Nick Cave and Dame Edna Everage, Melbourne netted perfect scores of 100 in several of these categories in last year’s liveability index. This is her moment in the sun – again. In your face, Sydney.

The Economist’s Liveability index is hardly without value, but personally I’m not prepared to take these annual ratings much more seriously than when Rolling Stone magazine devotes an issue to the 100 best hairband albums of the eighties.

To give just one example, the comparatively poor performances of London and New York in the index is mainly attributed to their “stability scores”, which are low because of a perceived terrorism risk. But considering pedestrian fatalities are on the rise in the latter, New Yorkers are likely in greater danger from Dodge Journeys than jihads.

The gnomes at The Economist’s “intelligence unit” work with sharp-edged economic and civic metrics, leaving fluid, subjective factors to painters, poets, and other unreliable authors.  Most people would describe Paris as a far more inspiring place that fourth-place winner Toronto, but that sort of sentiment escapes through the Economist’s finely-calibrated mesh like Pinot Noir.

But back to Vancouver, which is world-renowned for being an astoundingly aloof berg. In the first six months of living in this city, a new arrival still has a better chance of being invited to a local’s home for dinner than dying in an aforementioned terrorist attack – but probably not by as wide a margin as they would think. Civic friendliness does not compute in the liveability index.

This city is reportedly home to the world’s second-least affordable housing, and also hosts the largest and poorest postal code in Canada. Plus, it is embedded in a province with the highest rate of child poverty. Yet these questionable rankings haven’t deterred The Economist for booting Michael Buble’s hometown to the top of its Liveability Index for multiple years in a row.

And liveability for who, exactly? Certainly not for middle-class young couples starting families. They have about as much hope of owning a detached home within city precincts as snapping a selfie with a sasquatch. Vancouver’s Olympian real estate prices certainly offers a safe berth for international investment, including laundered drug money, but it’s increasingly unliveable for the kind of people who are more likely to watch HGTV than read The Economist.

Vaguely aware of her shortcomings, our West Coast beauty has morphed into a desperate-to-be-liked, gold-digging bachelorette, who curses Melbourne and Vienna for doing something unmentionable into her shampoo bottle.

Of course, the city’s physical allure has never been in doubt, though that’s mostly because it’s nestled in a mountainous amphitheater with a sandbox strip. For the past ten years, the spectacular setting has been enough to compensate for our civic leaders’ misbegotten ideas of making the city “world class”. But just by a peroxide hair.

Across the city, chief plastic surgeon Gregor Robinson is presiding over the architectural equivalent of porn star makeovers, with neighbourhood low-rises replaced with sky-scraping bazookas. Overseas pre-sales of units helps fire speculation by a global investor superclass with a jones for security and scenery. (“Nearly a quarter of condos in Vancouver are empty or occupied by non-residents in some dense areas of downtown,” the Globe and Mail reported in March, 2013.)

I don’t see any of the above factored into the Economist’s long-distance affections. In any case, Melbourne gets the final rose – and at least that has the virtue of dampening all the self-aggrandizing local press about Vancouver being “the most liveable city in the world.”

The Vancouver Courier, Sept. 5


by Geoff Olson

Publishers and broadcasters have a hankering for anniversaries.  From Darwin’s 200th birthday to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance in America,  the celebratory stuff makes for cheap content filler. But the continuing media commemorations of World War 1 seem like a rebranding of humanity’s first shot at mass suicide.

A Google News search for articles containing “World War 1” and “commemorate” yields 20,500 results. According to my dictionary, the verb “commemorate” means to “celebrate, pay tribute to, pay homage to, honour, salute, toast; remember, recognize, acknowledge, observe, mark.”

“Commemorate” conjures up late-night informercials and magazine advertisements pitching commemorative plates, coins, or stamps; small things intended to honour iconic events or people, and solidify historical memory into household keepsakes.

From 1914 to 1918, a trench-based, panEuropean meatgrinder turned millions of young men into fertilizer,  while enriching bankers, speculators, and industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic. In marking the centenary of  the 1914-1918 conflict, big media outlets are not honouring its end. They are honouring its beginning.

And there are some other interesting word choices involved.

“The Great War” was the favoured term for the first world war up until the outbreak of the second one. That’s when we began, optimistically enough, to number global conflagrations.  The term is of Canadian vintage, with the first reference in an October 1914 edition of Maclean’s magazine. “This is the Great War. It names itself,” a small note on page 53 proclaimed.

Katherine Martin, head of Oxford’s U.S. dictionaries program, told Maclean’s the unsigned reference is “the earliest found that is clearly intended to be a name for the war, rather than a description of it. The author had posterity in mind.”

Were he still around, the anonymous author would surely be pleased with my search index spelunking.  A Google News search of “the Great War” gave 58,300 entries. In contrast, a Google News search of articles containing “World War I” gave a mere 35,300 results.

A search through the Canadian Newstand database of 300 Canadian newspapers indicates “the Great War” has appeared in print three times more than “World War 1” since April of this year.  This former term was once common to English language broadsheets and broadcasts of the Downton Abbey era – and it’s back, big time.

Perhaps the term’s resurrection represents a “random walk” in our lingo, a stylistic meme hopping across newsrooms that’s of no greater significance than “Snoop Dogg” rebranding himself as “Snoop Lion”. Or perhaps it represents a shift in the collective consciousness, with multiple generations of Canadians blissfully ignorant of the first-hand horror of war (Remember the Harper government’s centenary campaign glorifying the War of 1812 in print and broadcast advertisements?)

Consider the connotations of the adjective “great”  – from exceptional and extraordinary, to large and extensive, to  first-rate and matchless, to magnificent and awe-inspiring. Then consider the massive, decade-long policy push from Washington to foment regime change in multiple nations around the world, aided and abetted by spin from embedded media outlets.  The retrograde shift from “World War I” to “Great War” seems a natural fit with the times.

Canadian military historian Gwynne Dyer rejects the euphemisms so persistently embroidered around mass killing. “We have to believe that Flanders Field and so on was a worthwhile sacrifice, because if it wasn’t, what did we to those young men?” he noted in a recent CBC radio interview.  “All of that poetic vocabulary – “warriors fall in combat” – no, I’m sorry, young men die.”

(Not incidentally, World War II is also known as “The Good War.”)

War is hell, whether it’s conducted by  bayonet  or ballistic missile, and massive public relations campaigns are always required to sell foreign entanglements to the citizenry. In large part because of the  Bush/Cheney wars that Obama inherited (and in some places enhanced), the number of global refugees  and displaced persons – 50 million – is at the highest since WW II.  It’s unlikely anyone on the receiving end of  this “freedom-spreading” would refer to any of it as “great.”

This uncomfortable fact, along with the recent resurrection of the cold war, makes the continuing commemorative pieces on the “Great War” feel like a nauseating ride on the Cognitive Dissonance Tilt-o-Whirl.  If you’re having a hard time keeping your lunch down, welcome to the club.

The Vancouver Courier, August 29